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What is Academic Tenure?

Tenured professors often teach less and offer less support to students.
A tenured professor may enjoy the benefits of a better office and academic freedom.
A tenured professor may be more willing to conduct controversial research due to the academic freedom involved with being tenured.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 20 September 2014
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Academic tenure is a guarantee of lifetime employment in an academic job, barring unforeseen and usually dramatic circumstances. Once a professor gains tenure, he or she becomes extremely difficult to remove from the position. Tenure has been widely criticized from both within the academic community and without, although there are certainly some solid reasons to offer academic tenure to notable professors. Many countries have reformed their tenure systems to reflect changing ideas about tenure and the nature of academic employment.

As a general rule, academic tenure is offered to instructors in senior positions. Until tenure is offered, professors are hired on a contract basis, which means that they could be released at any time. With tenure often come benefits such as a better office, health care benefits, larger payments into retirement accounts, and access to various perks at the university. Tenure is granted after a careful review of the candidate which is supposed to include teaching, publication history, research history, and a variety of other facets of the professor's performance.

In fact, tenure review sometimes focuses just on a professor's ability to get grants and get published, with the university looking for professors who will add to the endowment and prestige of the institution. As a result, sometimes shoddy professors get tenure, simply because they know how to assemble an appealing tenure application, and high-quality professors who are not as involved in academia may be overlooked.

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The primary justification for academic tenure is academic freedom. Because tenured professors cannot be fired or released without very sound reasons, they usually feel freer to express themselves. Tenured professors are willing to speak out, to conduct controversial research, and to question conventional wisdom. Professors without tenure may feel pressured to toe the party line in order to keep their jobs. Since many universities claim to value academic freedom and the freedom of expression, academic tenure is ostensibly used to support such freedoms.

Job security is also a very important issue with many professional unions, and in some cases, unions may pressure universities to offer tenure. A union professor may only be able to work so many years on contract, for example, forcing the university to offer tenure or release the professor. This strategy can backfire, of course, because a university may decide that releasing the professor is in its best interest.

There are a number of valid criticisms of academic tenure. Tenured professors often teach less, confident that they can take on a smaller course load and keep their jobs. They may also offer less support to students, and some are criticized as bad or lazy teachers. Tenure also has a chilling effect on academic freedom for non-tenured professors, who try not to rock the boat until they get tenure. Tenured professors also tend to be expensive to maintain, so if they don't “earn their keep” with grants and prestigious publications, they can become white elephants.

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subway11
Post 6

@Sauteepan - I wanted to add that I can see both sides of the case because there are stronger arguments in both directions.

I was looking into the academic salaries of some of these tenured professors and it was higher than I thought. The range varies depending on the type of institution but for the most part the average salary range for a tenured professor is from $70,000 to $165,000.

SauteePan
Post 5

@Bhutan - I understand what you are saying but I am not sure that tenure for an academic position is the right way to go. I think that the fact that you can lose your job motivates you to perform at your best.

However, if that fear is removed it might make a teacher complacent and not perform his or her job with the same zeal. I also think that it does not gives the school system an opportunity to evaluate the performance of the teacher each and every year to ensure that they are performing at satisfactory levels.

I know that there is a debate right now about ending teacher tenure for that reason in the public school system in Florida. As a matter of fact, the legislature signed a bill that would end teacher tenure for new and incoming teachers.

The teachers that have already obtained tenure will remain tenured. I think that the problem is that many schools are failing or are below average with respect to national standards and they want to make everyone accountable.

I think that in failing schools we have to look at everything and possibly put the best teachers in those schools in order to turn them around. The teaching profession is not easy, but I don’t think that offering tenure is the answer.

Bhutan
Post 4

@Suntan12 - I think that one of the reasons for tenure in an academic position is to allow the professor the freedom to teach in an in depth manner subjects that they deem important without repercussions. Tenure and academic freedom really go hand in hand.

For example, when I was in college, I had a tenured professor that taught Cuban history. He was an expert in Marxist ideology and Cuban studies this was his specialty. He taught in an unconventional manner which offered a different prospective that was often controversial. Although most of the class was filled with children of Cuban immigrants that had a totally different perspective altogether, the students could not complain and try to get this professor fired because they disagreed with his stance on communism.

This is why a tenured professor has to be protected because they will often delve into controversial areas in order to get the students to think more broadly, but many students often become offended and misconstrue the approach.

suntan12
Post 3

Anon86214 - No not really. Tenure is an official classification that protects the professor or teacher from losing their job and it is a highly coveted position. A professor may be teaching at an institution for a long time but that alone does not mean that they have tenure. Tenure is something that is granted and it is not automatic.

anon86214
Post 1

After a certain period of time spent on the job at a university, even in a non-tenure track position, isn't tenure actually implied in a legal sense?

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